On the Waterfront (1954)

03 May

I watched On the Waterfront as a cinematic duty, fully expecting it not to be my cup of tea, partly having assumed that Marlon Brando was not my cup of tea. But On the Waterfront…I should have known, because usually there is a reason a film is celebrated. It it gripping, exciting drama, the kind of drama you want to lean in towards. But it was the ending in particular that impressed me, possessing an unexpected power that lingers after the film ends.

One the Waterfront was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, based on a real incident, about dockworkers who are led by union boss/crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). He makes sure they get work and he gets a little extra in union dues. Anyone who does not play along does not get work. And anyone who rats on him gets killed.

When Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly aids Johnny Friendly in killing Terry’s friend Joey, he begins to feel unsettled by Johnny’s methods. Joey’s sister, Edie (Eve Marie Saint), wants answers and wants Terry to help her find who killed Joey. The priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), also wants Terry to help, but he wants all the workers to stand up against Friendly. Father Barry needs someone willing to go to the Crime Commission and testify…hopefully without getting killed. But everyone is too paralyzed with fear, too beaten down by life, and too locked in a mindset where the authorities are the enemy. One does not want to be a “cheese-eater,” a phrase repeated often throughout the story.

It’s partly a story of conflicted loyalty. Terry feels loyalty to his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger), who practically raised him, and to Friendly, who used to take him to ballgames and treats Terry well for the sake of his brother. But Terry also has a conscience bothering him and there seems no way to reconcile the two.

Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint

(Plot Spoilers Ahead) There is a marvelous scene when a member of the crime commission climbs to the roof where Terry keeps his pigeons. The man doesn’t directly challenge Terry or try to convince him to testify about Joey’s death. He simply and subtly manipulates Terry into admitting that Charley and Friendly used him while he was a boxer (having him take a dive), thus planting the seed that he really owes them no loyalty.

But what really convinces Terry to testify is when Friendly kills Charley. Friendly has begun to eat his own, so to speak, and now Terry’s motivation is more like revenge than anything else. He couldn’t quite do it for Edie’s sake, but he will do it for his own, since there is no longer that conflict of loyalty.

What really struck me, however, is that the climax of the film is not when Terry testifies. It comes afterwards. He testifies and suddenly his friends refuse to speak to him. All his friends, who resent Friendly, still turn their back on him and back up Friendly. It’s an amazing moment. Even Terry’s young friend turns his back on him, murdering all his pigeons. It’s actually shocking. That this child would feel so betrayed by Terry that he would murder the birds he’d cared for with Terry.

And that is when the entire dynamic of the film shifted for me. I spent a great deal of the film hating Friendly and wanting to see him brought to justice. But by the end of the film you realize that Friendly is not the problem. The problem is with the dockworkers. Even if Friendly had not existed, there would have been someone else.

In fact, it’s not even clear why, at the end, the dockworkers finally stand up against Friendly. Are they shamed by Terry – someone who is generally dismissed as a “bum” – or is it the sight of Friendly losing control of his temper to such an extant and thus revealing his vulnerability. Or is it the sight of Friendly and Terry fighting. Since Terry was always thought to be in the crowd with Friendly (because of being Charley’s brother), perhaps it is the visuals of watching them go at it (perhaps like a peasant watching a king fight with an aristocrat), thus revealing the weakness of the entire system.

On the Waterfront also won me over to Marlon Brando. I’ve always thought of him as a hyper-macho actor, but you can see why Edie falls for him. He may be a “bum” and not very bright, but he has a boyish charm and uncertainty, which sometimes manifests as a combination of aggressive shyness. He doesn’t know how to talk to Edie or express his feelings, but he doesn’t want anyone to see that, though Edie quickly catches on. I was also impressed with the hard-core and impassioned Father Barry, as played by Karl Malden. I grew up watching him in Pollyanna, the pastor under the thumb of Aunt Polly, and he’s loud and uncouth in The Hanging Tree, clearly possessing  quite an acting range.


Posted by on May 3, 2017 in Movies


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27 responses to “On the Waterfront (1954)

  1. carygrantwonteatyou

    May 3, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Oh I love this film. So fun to hear all those lines that now are so frequently imitated! So moving and powerful, and Brando is mesmerizing in it. I always feel that discomfort about Kazan though; the way the film justifies his own HUAC betrayals is unsettling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • christinawehner

      May 3, 2017 at 1:12 pm

      Yes…it was amazing to discover just how many famous lines came from that film! What a quotable script…and well delivered. 🙂 Yes, it’s interesting; I had approached the film having heard that it was a defense of his actions with HUAC, though I was surprised at its more universal themes. Though I must admit that although I do not think there is a defense for HUAC (it was wrong), I find many of the Hollywood Ten and some other’s support of Stalin and curious silence about the persecution of their fellow artists in the Soviet Unions similarly discomforting (especially considering what they had gone through with HUAC). In reading about the entire situation, it seemed that few covered themselves with glory in that period and that one of the crimes of HUAC was the tough spot it put people in.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Katrina Morrison

    May 4, 2017 at 6:25 am

    Hi Christina 😊 I love your honest review of this film and what it symbolises. This is one of the best films made because it has a thin layer of the bitter truth about the nature of the human soul when in fear. Your precise analysis of why this film brilliantly works is a great read. Thank you 👏

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 4, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Thank you! I can now see why it is so celebrated. It really makes one think, doesn’t it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Katrina Morrison

        May 4, 2017 at 9:31 am

        Yes, it does…but I am like you, the ending was so good….but not exactly sure of the why? But, I think it might be for the reasons you mentioned…it reminded me of the real life crisis of the Indian Pipeline recently and the movement to finally end it with all those people and ex vets volunteering and stepping up to not back down…

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 4, 2017 at 9:55 am

          Oh interesting…I am not as familiar with the Indian Pipeline, I must confess, but it is fascinating how much the ending reflects real life. So many films can be kind of shallow in their understanding of human nature, but it seems they really caught hold of something with On the Waterfront.


  3. stephencwinter

    May 4, 2017 at 7:16 am

    Here I am again with another film that I have never seen. Strangely, On The Waterfront is a movie that I have always known because of Leonard Bernstein’s powerful score but have never actually seen the film.
    For some time I have wondered if people often collude with their own oppression. I know of a church with many professional and educated people who had a pastor who bullied people that he perceived to be vulnerable. For a long time the congregation behaved like the dock workers and they sided with the pastor against those that he singled out. When at last his behaviour was exposed it was as if they came out of a collective bad dream.
    I can only conclude that there is a kind of weird rationality at work. People feel safer being miserable slaves who don’t have to think for themselves than being free and responsible for their own actions.
    Many thanks again for a fascinating reflection on a great movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 4, 2017 at 9:20 am

      Yes, I was really struck with his score! I think the only film he ever scored for, though I had not heard it until I saw the movie.

      That is fascinating to learn of a real-life example of how that could work in real life. It’s rather disturbing to think that people are capable of such things. You make a fascinating point …how it could be more frightening to have to leave the “security” of the group. As if people get used to it, so that instead of it oppression becoming intolerable, it becomes normal.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Andrea Lundgren

    May 4, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    I didn’t realize the movie we were discussing had Marlon Brando in it. How interesting! Oh, and I nominated you for a Liebster Award. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Alex Windley

    May 4, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Lovely review! Did you know that Grace Kelly was originally offered the part eventually played by Eva Marie Saint? Grace would have definitely been interesting in that role, but she chose Rear Window instead, not that I’m complaining, they’re both great films, haha


    • christinawehner

      May 4, 2017 at 7:14 pm

      Oh wow, I didn’t know that about Grace Kelly! That would have been very interesting, perhaps an atypical role for her, which would have been wonderful to see. Though it is, as you say, marvelous that she was able to appear in Read Window! Sometimes I think it would have been lovely to see a movie several times over, with different actors playing a role in each version, just so we could have a chance to see them. 🙂 Like I always thought it would have been interesting to see what Barbara Stanwyck made of the role in Dark Victory (I guess she had wanted that role) as well as Bette Davis.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alex Windley

        May 4, 2017 at 8:16 pm

        haha, I agree. Stanwyck in Dark Victory would have certainly been a sight to see!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Eric Binford

    May 6, 2017 at 11:29 am

    The politics of the film are fascinating. The film has been interpreted as Kazan’s attempt to justify his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Like you said, On the Waterfront is about loyalty, yet Kazan is known for an egregious act of disloyalty. In the film, the “fink” is the hero. Kazan saw himself as Terry — a man who is forced to make a difficult moral choice — and never apologized for naming names. Anyhow, it is a fantastic film — I need to re-watch it!.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      It is really fascinating, isn’t it!! I wonder if people saw the film when it came out as being his defense or if that is something people see in it in looking back?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        May 10, 2017 at 11:45 am

        That’s a great, great question! I wonder too. For example, Brando HATED what Kazan did so I’m inclined to think that he didn’t see the movie the way scholars see it today.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 10, 2017 at 12:01 pm

          Interesting! I wondered about Lee J. Cobb, too (who I was reading also named a few names). It would be fascinating to know how they saw it.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Grand Old Movies

    May 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    Terrific point you make about the dockworkers being the problem–their own problem, as it were–and not so much Johnny Friendly. The film still has power today, as do its performances; I think this was the film that made Marlon Brando an acting icon. So many actors today are still influenced by him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 6, 2017 at 8:34 pm

      I can now see why he became such an icon! I never appreciated that before (I don’t think Julius Caesar or Guys and Dolls was the best place for me to start with his films). There seems to be so much conviction at work in every aspect of the film.


  8. jennifromrollamo

    May 7, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    I have never been a big Brando fan either, but he is superb as Terry in this film. One of my favorite movies. I appreciate it’s portrayal of that struggle between staying quiet and minding one’s own business vs doing the right thing and speaking the truth about what you know. Excellent cast, all around, and Kazan directed them well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 8, 2017 at 10:17 am

      It feels like the role Brando was born to play! It’s made me curious to see more films by Kazan, too. He seems to have a real knack for, as you say, directing his cast well and the drama between characters is really exciting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jennifromrollamo

        May 8, 2017 at 6:29 pm

        You can search imdb for his films. Pinky is an excellent film, tackling racism in the late 1940s and Gentlemen’s Agreement, tackling anti-semitism in the same era, late 40s. I recently watched Splendor in the Grass for the first time and while I thought it a bit long, I liked his take on Inge’s play-with Inge playing a bit part in the film. I also love his take on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-a lovely film.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 8, 2017 at 8:18 pm

          Ooh, I’d love to see his version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! It sounds like he really took on some challenging topics. Thanks for the recommendations!

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Silver Screenings

    May 14, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    This is an incredible film. I’m not a huge Marlon Brando fan, but he is riveting in this role, as are the other cast members: Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint et al?! Doesn’t get much better than that.

    A lot to think about in this film, like you said, about corruption and oppression and our reactions to it. I saw it only once, at a time when I myself had to make a tough decision, and Karl Malden’s character helped bring perspective. I think it’s time to see this again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 14, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      Malden is so inspiring! I was stunned that after his impassioned speech the dockworkers still largely did not heed him…though perhaps it shows that people need more than words to change how they live and do things?

      I agree – hard to get a better cast!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. silverscreenclassicsblog

    May 18, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    Oh how I love this film. It took quite a great deal of gumption to make a film about corrupt union officials on the docks, with such a gritty and dour setting in black and white- during an era where most films produced by major studios were vibrant in colour, musicals and big in terms of content and story. And competing with television too! Karl Malden is a powerhouse as the priest and his ‘eulogy’ in the hole at the body of Duggan is brilliant. The famous ‘I coulda been a contender’ scene has been hammed up and used as comedy fodder for years but it never fails to move me and it has a universiality that reaches everyone – after all is there anyone at some point in their life that didn’t have a ‘shot’ at something or ‘coulda’ become somebody? Been too long since I last watched this great film – thanks Christina for inspiring me to watch it again! A great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. christinawehner

    May 19, 2017 at 10:13 am

    Thank you! “Powerhouse” is a great word for Malden. And for the whole film! I loved that scene between his brother, the “contender” scene. It was great to see the original, since I had heard the spoofs of it. You’re so right – despite the spoofs its still a great scene! Hope you enjoy watching it again!



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